On June 1, the 2010 hurricane season officially began. While there were already speculation that the 2010 hurricane season would be one of the most active seasons, a prediction which matched that of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina was formed, the additional variable of the massive BP oil spill highlights a new danger in facing residents of the Gulf Coast.
Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico provides a vast unknown for all who try to understand the already complicated weather systems in the Gulf. With the weakening of the El Nino system, the atmospheric energy coming out of Africa is hitting the Gulf of Mexico nearly unchecked. This should create a number of tropical storms and hurricanes, though not all will hit any particular region or section of ocean. These were the same circumstances in 2005, a season that produced both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
What is different is the vast amount of oil both on the surface and sub-surface of the open ocean. Even NOAA admits that there is limited knowledge about how the hurricane or tropical storm will interact with the oil spill. Even while there is much uncertainty, there is still a fair amount which is known or can be estimated.
Will the BP oil spill prevent hurricanes from forming?
This is a common question that is asked by coastal residents nearly every day, mostly because they are looking for some sort of silver lining to the devastation being wrought down on them. There answer, simply, is both yes and no.
According to a factsheet prepared by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center (a division of NOAA), oil on the surface could prevent hurricanes from forming. The catch is that there must be enough oil to create a thick enough layer to prevent water from making contact with the air. Water in contact with air creates water vapor, which happens to be the “fuel” for tropical weather development. Since oil sits on top of the water, enough oil, in a thick enough layer, could prevent water from evaporating, thereby slowing or stopping storm development.
Unfortunately, the oil has spread out so thinly that even small waves allow water to contact the air. Currently, on areas near the oil spill itself are thick enough to prevent water from coming in contact with the air. As it stands, for silver linings, this is not what coast residents should be looking for.
Worst case scenario for the hurricane and oil spill mix
In a worst case situation, a hurricane could drive through on the western side of the spill, punching an oil laden storm surge into the coastal states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The storm surge/oil spill combination would leave cities ruined while also contaminating them with fresh crude oil and their dangerous hydrocarbons.
In this situation, houses that were damaged by storm surge would also have the contaminants in their homes. Drywall and the house structure would have to be decontaminated or removed entirely. Whole towns would have to literally be rebuilt. Where Hurricane Katrina kept coastal residents out of their homes for weeks, the decontamination operations could take months.
To make matters worse, BP would be forced to abandon any recovery operations at the Deepwater Horizon site until the storm passed. That would leave a 60,000 barrel (2.5 million gallon) leak left unchecked gushing into the Gulf.
Is there any silver lining to a hurricane in the Gulf?
There is one silver lining, should a storm make its way into the oil portion of the Gulf. Any action from the hurricane would increase the amount of weathering on the oil itself. While it would be desirable for the storms to not come through at all, lest BP have to abandon recovery operations, the increased weathering will make the oil that does wash ashore much safer, as compared to the raw crude oil.
If a storm does need to pass through the area, it needs to pass through slowly. It also needs to pass on the eastern side to keep from driving oil into the coast line. A slow pass on the eastern edge could help dilute and weather any surface, and subsurface, oil, thereby making it a safer environment, relatively. Understand though, that BP will evacuate the Deepwater Horizon site when they determine their crews may be at risk.
In a perfect world, the spill would be capped and then the storm would pass by, churning the waters just so. Here’s to hoping for that silver lining.